Chiefly remembered for his music criticism and his influence on H.L. Mencken, James Huneker was, in Mencken's words, a dazzling writer who "emancipated criticism in America from its old slavery to stupidity, and with it . . . emancipated all the arts themselves."
"Coney Island at Night" (originally published in the New York Herald newspaper in 1906) serves as a reminder that Huneker was also a talented journalist. Employing strategies that later came to be associated with creative nonfiction, Huneker recorded his impressions of Coney Island "during a torrid spell," focusing on a heart-breaking encounter with the family of Hyman Levin.
Coney Island has been knocked down and rebuilt countless times since Huneker composed this feature story over a century ago. But as he predicted, there still remain "many Levins in New York, of many nationalities."
Coney Island at Night
by James Huneker
It was the hottest night of the summer at Coney Island. All day a steaming curtain of mist hid the sun from the eyes of men and women and children; yet proved no shield against the blasting heat. Humidity and not the sun-rays had been the enemy. And when a claret-colored disk showed dully through the nacreous vapors just before setting, we knew that the night would bring little respite from the horror of the waking hours. It was a time to try men's nerves. The average obligations of life had faded into the abyss of general indifference, one that had absorbed the exactions of daily behavior--politeness, order, sobriety, and decency. Add a few notches upward on the thermometer, and mankind soon reverts to the habits and conditions of his primitive ancestors. The ape, the tiger, and the jackal in all of us come to the surface with shocking rapidity. We are, in a reasonable analysis, the victims of our environment, the slaves of temperature. Heat and cold have produced the African and the Laplander. At Coney Island during a torrid spell we are very near the soil; we cast to the winds modesty, prudence, and dignity. Then, life is worth living only when stripped to the skin.
Three seasons had I passed without a visit to this astonishing bedlam, yet I found the place well-nigh unrecognizable. Knowing old Coney Island, the magnitude of its changes did not so much amaze and terrify me. One should never be amazed in America. After an hour's hasty survey, Atlantic City seemed a normal spot. Broad stretches of board walk, long, sweeping beaches, space to turn about--these and other items might be added. But at Coney Island the cramped positions one must assume to stand or move, the fierce warfare of humanity as it forces its way along the streets or into the crazy shows--surely conceived by madmen for madmen--the indescribable and hideous symphony of noise running the gamut from shrill steam whistles to the diapasonic roar of machinery; decidedly the entire place produced the sensation of abnormality, of horrible joys grabbed at by a savage horde of barbarians, incapable of repose even in their moments of leisure. Some one has said that the Englishman takes his pleasures sadly; then we must take ours by rude assault. All Coney Island reminded me of a disturbed ant-heap, the human ants ferocious in their efforts to make confusion thrice confounded, to heap up horrors of sound and of sight.
There must be in every one, no matter how phlegmatic, a residuum of energy which may boil over when some exciting event knocks at the door of our being. It is, psychologists assure us, the play-instinct of the animal in us that delights in games innocent and dangerous. If forty thousand people assemble to see a game of baseball, how many more would gather with feverish gaiety if there were a surety of the umpire's death at every game? The Romans daily witnessed men and women destroyed in the arena of their circus--witnessed it with a satisfaction aesthetic and profound. The reason was not that they were less civilized than the moderns, but only more frank. Their play-instinct was more fully developed and the classical world was not hampered by our moral prejudices.
As cruelty is proscribed among highly civilized nations today--the game of life being so vilely cruel that the arena with its bulls and tigers is unnecessary--our play-instinct finds vent in a species of diversion that must not be examined too closely, as it verges perilously on idiocy. Coney Island is only another name for topsyturvydom. There the true becomes the grotesque, the vision of a maniac. Else why those nerve-racking entertainments, ends of the world, creations, hells, heavens, fantastic trips to ugly lands, panoramas of sheer madness, flights through the air in boats, through water in sleds, on the earth in toy trains! Unreality is as greedily craved by the mob as alcohol by the dipsomaniac; indeed, the jumbled nightmares of a morphine eater are actually realized at Luna Park. Every angle reveals some new horror. Mechanical waterfalls, with women and children racing around curving, tumbling floods; elephants tramping ponderously through streets that are a bewildering muddle of many nations, many architectures; deeds of Western violence and robbery, illustrated with a realism that is positively enthralling; Japanese and Irish, Germans and Indians, Hindus and Italians, cats and girls and ponies and--the list sets whirring the wheels of the biggest of dictionaries.
In Dreamland there is a white tower that might rear itself in Seville and cause no comment. (This was so before fire destroyed the place.) Hemming it about are walls of monstrosities--laughable, shocking, sinister, and desperately depressing. In the center flying boats cleave the air; from the top of a crimson lighthouse flat, sled-like barges plunge down a liquid railroad, while from every cavern issue screams of tortured and delighted humans and the hoarse barking of men with megaphones. They assault your ears with their invitations, protestations, and blasphemies. You are conjured to "go to Hell—gate"; you are singled out by some brawny individual with threatening intonations and bade enter the animal show where a lion or a tiger is warranted to claw a keeper at least once a day. The glare is appalling, the sky a metallic blue, the sun a slayer.
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